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My Beef with the Gamification of Education.

As most of you know, I've been arguing that technology DOESN'T motivate kids and that our goal SHOULDN'T be to engage learners for a long time (see here and here and here and here and here).

Those strands started rolling through my mind again this morning when iMagine Machine dropped me a Tweet asking me to check out their new geometry themed game, The Land of Venn because they thought it aligned nicely with my quest to find learning opportunities -- not technology -- that motivates kids.

So I spent a few minutes poking around the Land of Venn's website -- and walked away more convinced than ever that #edtech conversations and companies are headed in the wrong direction.

Now don't get me wrong:  There's nothing inherently evil about The Land of Venn.  From the description on the site, elementary kids in grades one through four are exposed to geometric terms and shapes while trying to save an imaginary land from an evil wizard who has set out to destroy a rock guitar playing Elegast. "Mesmerizing gameplay and an original plot," the site explains, "captivates the child in a unique and exciting world of monsters and magic juice."

Sounds better than a worksheet, right?

What bugs me is that like most educational games, The Land of Venn seems to place a heavy emphasis on traditional instructional strategies like memorization and repetition.

Marketing statements like "Sneakily teaches geometry step by step without the child even realizing it" and "The Child will draw over 5000 geometrical shapes while being continually exposed to a variety of geometric terms and principles over 5000 times" hint that The Land of Venn isn't all that revolutionary.  Sure, drill and practice plays a role in learning.  And yes, mastering basic skills and concepts is a first step towards doing more meaningful work.  But shouldn't reimagining the classroom be about something more than find exciting substitutions for memorization and repetition?

I'm also bugged by the fact that so many folks believe that we need digital games set in fictional spaces with recalcitrant zombies and talking unicorns and whizz-bang magic spells in order for kids to develop the skills celebrated by supporters of gamification.

People who promote the gamification of education celebrate the recursive, collaborative and reflective nature of the learning that happens in games.  As gamers work their way through new challenges and levels, they fail and plan and strategize and modify and share and collaborate with one another.

Those ARE skills that matter.

But to suggest that students will only willingly embrace those skills when they are working through "exciting worlds full of monsters and magic juice" is a cop out for teachers and an insult to kids.  Imagine how much more meaningful learning could be if kids were failing and planning and strategizing and sharing and collaborating with one another while trying to address a REAL problem facing REAL people in the REAL world?

Clean water is a problem in this world.  Heck, every 20 SECONDS, a child dies because they don't have access to a fresh water source.  Global poverty is a problem.  So is pollution and violence and deforestation and the loss of pollinators and bias in news sources and unfair elections and immigration and fracking and powering the planet and access to safe community spaces like libraries and parks.

Couldn't we build "gamified" learning experiences around those issues too?  

My personal goal over the past several years has been to encourage students to become active contributors to the communities around us.  Inspired by Marc Prensky's argument that technology gives kids power and Will Richardson's push for schools to give kids chances to do work that matters, I'm trying to deliver essential skills within the context of projects designed to make a difference.  Whether we are Kiva lending, creating anti-bullying PSAs, or raising awareness about the sugar in the foods we eat, the projects that leave my kids inspired are the projects that are connected to something beyond our classroom.

Don't get me wrong:  I bet that some kids will LOVE having the chance to save the rock guitar playing Elegast from Apeirogon the dark wizard in The Land of Venn.  But I'd love to see those same kids saving their own communities from the metaphorical Apeirogon's that we wrestle with on a daily basis.

Doing so would leave them more than engaged.  It would leave them empowered.

_______________________

Related Radical Reads:

My Kids, a Cause and our Classroom Blog

An Interview with the #sugarkills Gang

#edtech Reflections for Preservice Teachers

Technology is a Tool, NOT a Learning Outcome

 

9 Comments

Kris Giere commented on July 13, 2014 at 7:26pm:

Gamification...

Bill,

I completely agree with you.  Educational games are not the same as gamification.  And there are game designers who are focusing on producing games that create a positive effect in society.  Check out Games for Change (@G4C) and the work of designers that they promote are out to make tangible changes in the world.

There is also some great research out there on the benefits of games, not just how they can manipulate people to do something they'd otherwise think is boring.  Games that focus on making learning fun too often miss the point of how games can create empathy, altruism, confidence, and motivation.  So much of the potential of games is left untapped.

Kris

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on July 15, 2014 at 3:42pm:

Looking forward to checking

Looking forward to checking out Games for Change, Kris -- and I agree with you:  There ARE good applications for games in education and the traits of gamers are often the traits that we try to develop in all students. 

What frightens me is that the lines between "I want to use the traits of gaming environments to stretch my kids and my learning spaces" are getting seriously blurred with "I found this really cool game for teaching geometry."  That kind of blurring happens often in education and it's something we need to push back against.

Rock on,

Bill

Kris Giere commented on July 16, 2014 at 5:54pm:

Push back

Bill,

I completely agree with you.  We do need to push back against the notion that a cool geometry game is the same as motivating students.  The burst of excitement with those sorts of games is short-lived compared to the sustaining value of using the concept of an avatar to help students explore their academic identity and having the not only design the avatar but define the meaning of why it looks how it does and each element connects to something defining about them and their interactions in the world of "school" as it were.  The simple sense of belonging that can manifest from an activity like the avatar one has resulted in not only increased engagement but in altruism when engaging with others who also identify as students of that world/school.  That is just a glimpse of the power of games.  Getting homework done with fewer complaints is just a bonus, instead of the goal (a la geometry game).

Kris

Kris Giere commented on July 13, 2014 at 7:27pm:

Gamification...

Bill,

I completely agree with you.  Educational games are not the same as gamification.  And there are game designers who are focusing on producing games that create a positive effect in society.  Check out Games for Change (@G4C) and the work of designers that they promote are out to make tangible changes in the world.

There is also some great research out there on the benefits of games, not just how they can manipulate people to do something they'd otherwise think is boring.  Games that focus on making learning fun too often miss the point of how games can create empathy, altruism, confidence, and motivation.  So much of the potential of games is left untapped.

Kris

Kris Giere commented on July 13, 2014 at 7:27pm:

Gamification...

Bill,

I completely agree with you.  Educational games are not the same as gamification.  And there are game designers who are focusing on producing games that create a positive effect in society.  Check out Games for Change (@G4C) and the work of designers that they promote are out to make tangible changes in the world.

There is also some great research out there on the benefits of games, not just how they can manipulate people to do something they'd otherwise think is boring.  Games that focus on making learning fun too often miss the point of how games can create empathy, altruism, confidence, and motivation.  So much of the potential of games is left untapped.

Kris

Philip Thonbo commented on July 14, 2014 at 6:59am:

age segregation for motivation

I have build both types of games and I general work with what kids love digitally in a non-educational context - ive worked for companies like coca-cola and lego for years now - my specialty is to dig deep into the minds of kids and figure out what triggers their motivation mostly digitally - but contextually also through general play

the problem with real world problems is - kids in the age ~ 1 - 6 dont care about pollution, poverty and real world problems its way too abstract for them, they play shop or cars or family things they know of.

In the age 7-10 kids starts exploring the boundaries of the world they live in, by creating play through fantasy that goes beyond whats real, exploring fantasy lands and imaginary places. Real world problems are not a motivational factor at this point.

At the ages 11 - 14, kids starts developing identities. they need to define who they are and how they are being look at and thought of, here we might see some real world problem solving as a part of figuring out who they are and what they stand for.

But still the motivation that drives you and me is NOT the same motivation that drives kids. realizing that is the first step to making captivating content

Wwhen kids buy lego. the ones that buy the "city" products (which is the one closest to real world problems), is the ones who loves police, firemen, bulldozers and airplanes for what they are not what they do. every other kid buys fantasy world products to escape reality.

we have built a game that tells you what kinds of products to buy in the supermarket and how that affects you, your health and the eco system all over the world - there is health, economics, pollution, and gamification. we built it at a gamejam called gamechanger - rules was to built a game that would change the world ... how could you change the world the fastest with out donating large amounts of cash or traveling half way agro the planet? "vote with your money" when you go grocery shopping.

the problem with this game was, the user really quickly lost interest because the subject was too close to the users own everyday reality - and this is why "second life" emerged and dried out in half the time "world of warcraft" have had its successfull lifespan - in order to create excitement you need to move away from what is real and normal

try talking to your kids about poverty in africa and then talk about "how dragons once rules the earth" and see what captivates them the most - even dinosaurs are exciting because its far away from their "current reality"

- your intentions are great! - but for my point of view learning about the world through what ever kinds of motivational treats is what happens in school - solving real world problems through gamification is what they do when they have completed their education and starts working either on their own projects or crowdsourced projects

in short: while you learn, focus on learning the best way possible! - when you grow up and understand the world around you, then you can start solving world problems.

adults love gamification too dont forget that - there are just as many +20 year old gamers out there as kids gamers - so solving real world problems through gamification can be done and its is being done.

look at who plays civilization and there you have your perfect age segregation for solving real world problems.

sorry my english gramatics is not spot on.

 

 

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on July 15, 2014 at 3:54pm:

Philip wrote:

Philip wrote:

try talking to your kids about poverty in africa and then talk about "how dragons once rules the earth" and see what captivates them the most - even dinosaurs are exciting because its far away from their "current reality"

----------------------

Funny you should mention this, Philip, because the most engaged I've ever seen my students is when they participate in Kiva lending, giving them a direct avenue to addressing poverty in Africa.  In six years, we've loaned over $20,000 to 600+ entrepreneurs.  Throughout, we talk about concepts connected to our curriculum -- things like the differences between the developed and developing world, the art of persuasion, evaluating statistics. 

So my experience with students isn't the same as yours with kids. 

I also wonder about words like "captivates" and "exciting."  I totally get that kids are enthralled by magical worlds.  I teach middle schoolers, after all.  Fantasy is one of their favorite genres.

But to suggest that it isn't possible for kids to think beyond themselves and to care about world issues just doesn't resonate with my experiences in classrooms.  Maybe it isn't happening.  Maybe we are satisfied with entertaining our kids or tapping into obvious interests -- but I know that causes like poverty resonate.

Interesting thinking alongside you,

Bill

Philip Thonbo commented on July 14, 2014 at 7:50am:

Motivation above all and divergent vs convergent thinking

The will to win outweighs the skill to win

if your content isnt motivating then your results will only be mediocre, so get your motivation right and result will blow the roof

ok back to subject - if you want to help kids solve real world problems the best way is to ensure they stay on a creative path - change the curriculum from convertgent thinking to divergent thinking. Studies show that on the age of 12, a persons creativity starts to change due to mostly convergent thinking in schools. all questions have one right answer - easy to teach, easy to meshure. If we start producing students with divergent thinking - real world problems wont stand a chance :)

Rod Powell commented on July 23, 2014 at 2:20pm:

 "Imagine how much more

 "Imagine how much more meaningful learning could be if kids were failing and planning and strategizing and sharing and collaborating with one another while trying to address a REAL problem facing REAL people in the REAL world?"

 

Great thought Bill.  As a Social Studies teacher in a 1:1 HS, I've seen how "the glittering machine" lures teachers into chasing the latest greatest ed. app. or program and insert them into  lesson without any thought.  Many of the visitors to our school seem to be focused on the technology as well.  What's missing in these situations is the power of tech to connect real people working on real problems in the real world.  Social media, the "Google", and many other apps can make this happen.  But they are just tools to network.

 

So you've got me thinking....what will be the projects my 11th grade US History classes work on this year that will connect them to the world beyond their classroom - to do more than engage them, but to empower them.  

 

Any ideas?

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